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Hadrian: building the wall

Hadrian: building the wall

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In AD122 Hadrian ordered a mighty frontier system to be built across the north of Britain. The result was Hadrian's Wall, a 73 mile barrier stretching from the Solway Firth on the west coast of Britain to the River Tyne on the east coast.
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Unearthed near Hadrian’s Wall: lost secrets of first Roman soldiers to fight the barbarians

Archaeologists are likening the discovery to winning the lottery. A Roman cavalry barracks has been unearthed near Hadrian’s Wall, complete with extraordinary military and personal possessions left behind by soldiers and their families almost 2,000 years ago. A treasure trove of thousands of artefacts dating from the early second century has been excavated over the past fortnight.

The find is significant not just because of its size and pristine state, but also for its contribution to the history of Hadrian’s Wall, showing the military build-up that led to its construction in AD122. The barracks pre-dates the wall: the Romans already had a huge military presence in the area, keeping the local population under control.

“The native Britons took an opportunity, when the emperor Trajan died in AD117, to rebel,” says Andrew Birley, who heads the archaeological team. “The soldiers stationed in the north before the wall was built became involved in fighting and were very vulnerable. The evidence we have from this [find] shows the incredibly rich and diverse lifestyle these people had.”

Archaeologists stumbled on the site by chance and have been taken aback by finds in a remarkable state of preservation. These include two extremely rare cavalry swords – one of them complete, still with its wooden scabbard, hilt and pommel – and two wooden toy swords. One has a gemstone in its pommel.

As well as other weapons, including cavalry lances, arrowheads and ballista bolts – all left behind on the floors – there are combs, bath clogs, shoes, stylus pens, hairpins and brooches. Sections of beautifully woven cloth have also been unearthed. They may have come from garments and have yet to be tested.

The barracks was discovered beneath the fourth-century stone fort of Vindolanda. Photograph: Sonya Galloway

There are also two wooden tablets covered in marks made in black ink. They are thought to be letters, but their contents have yet to be deciphered as they were rushed into a conservation laboratory to ensure their survival.

The barracks, which dates from AD105, was found beneath the fourth-century stone fort of Vindolanda, south of Hadrian’s Wall near Hexham, Northumberland. It is one of the site’s earliest barracks. Hadrian did not begin his 73-mile defensive barrier – to guard the north-western frontier of the province of Britain from invaders – until 122.

The artefacts survived because they were concealed beneath a concrete floor laid by the Romans about 30 years after the barracks was abandoned, shortly before 120. The concrete created oxygen-free conditions that helped preserve materials such as wood, leather and textiles, which would otherwise have rotted away.

Birley said: “The swords are the icing on the cake for what is a truly remarkable discovery of one of the most comprehensive and important collections from the intimate lives of people living on the edge of the Roman Empire at a time of rebellion and war. What’s exciting is that [they] are remarkably well-preserved … There is a huge range of stuff – their hair combs, pots, wooden spoons, bowls, weapons, bits of armour, and their cavalry bling.

“Even for us, it’s very unusual to get things like complete Roman swords, sitting on the ground in their scabbards with their handles and their pommels. We were slightly dumbfounded by that. Then, to find another complete sword in another room next door only two metres away, two wooden swords and a host of other cavalry equipment, all in beautiful condition, is just terrific.

“Archaeologists would never expect to find a Roman cavalry sword in any context, because it’s like a modern-day soldier leaving his barracks and dumping his rifle on the floor … This is a very expensive thing. So why leave [it] behind?”

Moments after being uncovered, the strap junction still shines because of the airless conditions in which it was preserved. Photograph: Sonya Galloway

He recalled feeling “quite emotional” over the discovery: “You can work as an archaeologist your entire life on Roman military sites and never expect, or imagine, seeing such a rare thing, even at Vindolanda. It felt like the team winning a form of archaeological lottery, and we knew we had something very rare and special before us.”

Archaeologists lifted up a piece of concrete flooring while exploring the foundations of the fourth-century stone fortress. They were struck by a layer of black, sweet-smelling and perfectly preserved anaerobic soil in an area where it was completely unexpected.

Hidden in this soil, they went on to find, were the timber walls and floors, fences, pots and animal bones from the abandoned barracks. To their astonishment, excavating about 3.5 metres down, they uncovered eight rooms, with stables for horses, and living accommodation, with ovens and fireplaces.

They believe that the base was home to more than 1,000 soldiers and probably many thousands more dependants, including slaves. The Romans had covered over this early barracks with concrete and heavy clay foundations before building another above it. At Vindolanda, garrisons would arrive, build their forts and destroy them when leaving.

Birley said: “We have got successive barracks above them, some of which are also cavalry, but they’re much later and not preserved with anything like the range of material that has come from within the anaerobic conditions. What you’re seeing here is the full range of stuff, and all those little details that normally rot away completely.”

Cavalry swords are very rare, even across the north-west provinces of the Roman empire, he said, partly because they are so thin. “They’re very light, a couple of feet long, designed to slash somebody as you’re riding past, with a wickedly sharp blade and a point.”

Reenactors at Hadrian’s Wall: it is believed up to 1,000 soldiers lived at the 2nd-century garrison. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Other finds include copper alloy cavalry fitments for saddles, strap junctions and harnesses. They are in such fine condition that they still shine and are almost completely free of corrosion. The strap junctions are preserved so beautifully, he said, that they have all their alloy links – incredibly rare survivals.

Much of the pottery has graffiti, from which the archaeologists hope to work out the names and stories of some of the people who lived here.

The discovery is all the more emotional for Birley, as his archaeologist father, Robin, headed the team that discovered the famous Vindolanda writing tablets in 1973. The new tablets may give further insights. They are letters either sent to, or written by, the people living in those buildings.

Birley said: “So, as a collection of stuff, it doesn’t really get better than that. Some of the documents will hopefully give the names, the characters, what they’re thinking about, what they’re doing.”

Quite why so much valuable material was left behind has yet to be discovered. One theory is that the barracks was abandoned in a hurry. Birley said: “There was strife. This is the precursor to Hadrian coming to the UK to build his wall. This is the British rebellion. So you can imagine a scenario where the guys and girls at Vindolanda are told: ‘We need to leave in a hurry, just take what you can carry.’ If it’s your sword or your child, you grab the child.”


What is Hadrian’s Wall?

Built on the orders of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and located in Great Britain, Hadrian’s Wall was a defensive fortification that marked the northwest frontier of the Roman Empire for three centuries. The wall measured 73 miles in length and stretched from coast to coast across present-day northern England, between Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west. Construction likely started around A.D. 122, after Hadrian visited the Roman province then known as Britannia, and it’s thought to have taken an army of 15,000 men at least six years to complete it. The majority of the wall was made from stone, although some portions were fabricated from turf.

Small forts called milecastles were established at every Roman mile (the equivalent of .91 modern miles) along the wall, and two observation turrets were placed between each milecastle. Additionally, there were more than a dozen larger forts along the wall’s length where soldiers were stationed. An enormous earthwork consisting of a ditch flanked by parallel mounds, and now referred to as the Vallum, was created just south of the wall. Hadrian served as emperor from 117 until his death in 138. Afterward, the new emperor, Antoninus Pius, erected a turf wall to the north of Hadrian’s Wall, in present-day Scotland. However, the so-called Antonine Wall, which also had a number of forts along its length, was deserted in the 160s and the Romans reoccupied Hadrian’s Wall. The forts along the wall likely were occupied until the end of Roman rule in Britain, in the early 5th century.


Learn more about the story of the Berlin Wall

Getty AFP

In 122 AD, Emperor Hadrian ordered a wall to be built between the Solway and the Tyne to guard the north-west boundary of the Roman Empire. It was called Hadrian's Wall - and nowadays you can find it near to England's border with Scotland.

It was built within about six years and was around 120km long, separating the Romans from the Caledonian tribes north of the wall, with whom they didn't get on.

There were special forts at intervals along the wall so that Roman soldiers could protect their border.

Historic England

'Graffiti' markings in rocks near to Hadrian's Wall have told archaeologists a great deal about the Roman soldiers who used to be stationed there.


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In front of the Wall lay a berm, normally about 20 Roman feet (6m) wide. In places in the eastern 17.5km of the Wall pits have been found on the berm. In one area at least, where there were three rows of pits, each held two substantial posts, perhaps cut down tree trunks with the branches trimmed short and sharpened at their ends. In one sector the pits were recut. Beyond the berm lay a ditch. It ran along the whole length of the Wall, except where the crags or similar features rendered it unnecessary. It was probably planned to be 30 Roman feet (9m) wide. The material from its excavation was tipped out to the north to form a wide, low mound.

At every mile along the wall was placed a gate protected by a small fortlet termed a milecastle. The milecastles were of stone on the stone wall and turf and timber on the turf sector. Most of the excavated milecastles held one building, presumably a barrack-block, probably for about 8 men. Two milecastles appear to have held two double-sized such buildings suggesting a larger garrison. Some milecastles contained hearths and an oven, while in one a staircase leading to the top of the milecastle wall has been found.

Between each pair of milecastles lay two towers, called turrets. These were always built of stone. A platform on the ground floor was presumably the base for a stair or, less likely, a ladder. The primary purpose of the soldiers based in each turret was presumably observation, and therefore there should have been a tower over the north gate of each milecastle. The placing of the door on the ground floor of the turret suggests that security was not an important concern.

The Second Scheme

The first plan for Hadrian's Wall was not completed before a major change was made. At intervals of about 11.2km a fort was placed on the Wall. It would appear that wherever possible the intention was to place the fort astride the Wall with three of its gates north of the linear barrier and one to the south. Moreover, all these gates were, unusually, double portal with the rearward gate supplemented by two single-portal side gates. The effect of this positioning was to improve the mobility of the army in the frontier area. This decision was not taken lightly for it involved the demolition of sectors of the Wall, turrets and even a milecastle already constructed and the in-filling of lengths of ditch, while many forts in Wales and northern Britain were abandoned to provide troops for the new forts on the Wall.

At about the same time another significant change was made, the construction of a great earthwork, known since the time of the Venerable Bede writing in about 730 as the Vallum, behind the Wall from Newcastle to Bowness-on-Solway. It consisted of a central ditch with a mound set back on each side. It formed a formidable obstacle and perhaps should have been seen as the Roman equivalent of barbed-wire protecting the rear of the frontier zone. Now crossing the frontier was only possible at a fort where the access point, a causeway, was surmounted by a gate. The number of points where the frontier complex could be crossed was reduced from about 80 to about 16.

There were further changes to the Wall, but of a different character. The width of the Wall was reduced from 10 Roman feet (3m) to sometimes as little as 6 feet (1.8m). There was also a clear decline in standards of craftsmanship with later structures much more shoddily finished off than earlier ones. It is difficult to know when Hadrian's Wall was completed. An inscription suggests that one fort was not finished until after 128. Nearly ten years later, the fort at Carvoran was being repaired or rebuilt, though this was not a normal Wall fort. Also before the end of Hadrian's reign, a start had been made on replacing turf wall in stone, though by this time only 8km had been built.


The fascinating history of Hadrian's Wall

Tired of staring at the same old walls? How about travelling to view one built 1,900 years ago? The Roman Army began constructing Hadrian&rsquos Wall back in the year 122 AD as part of measures to consolidate their then mighty empire.

These days, the rural countryside of northern England, through which the wall runs proves popular with walkers. The national hiking trail that skirts the ancient monument typically takes seven days to trek in full.

History enthusiasts may need longer if they wish to spend time exploring the remnants of forts, mile castles and turrets along the 118 kilometres between Bowness-on-Solway in Cumbria and Wallsend. The logic of that modern placename is obvious but Romans knew the town on the eastern fringe of Newcastle upon Tyne as Segedunum. Today, that Latin name is displayed outside a family-friendly museum conveying aspects of life long ago in the most easterly fort on what was for many years the Roman Empire&rsquos northern frontier.

Inspired by local history with international resonance, Wallsend&rsquos Metro station is the only one in Britain to display both English and Latin signage. It&rsquos a 45-minute ride from Newcastle International Airport, which has direct Emirates&rsquo flights from Dubai.

If following in the footsteps of Roman soldiers across the country seems a tad strenuous, visitors can board a seasonal bus, running until October 31, that pauses at points of interest between Haltwhistle and Hexham. For those who know when Hadrian&rsquos Wall was built, the number of the bus is easy to remember &mdash AD122.

As the broad stone wall snakes through the rugged landscape of Northumberland National Park, it rises to chest height. When the Roman Empire was in its heyday, the wall would have been a formidable barrier around three metres tall &mdash the height of a basketball ring &mdash set amid a militarised zone demarcated by ditches. Builders in subsequent centuries plundered the wall for stones shaped by skilled masons.

Local landmarks such as Hexham Abbey and Langley Castle, a medieval fortification offering overnight accommodation, count among the historic buildings that utilised &lsquorecycled&rsquo stonework. The practice of building with stone carted from the wall explains why the ancient monument stands tallest away from urban hubs.

A 20-minute walk from Birdoswald Fort, Willowsford is widely regarded one of the best spots for viewing remnants of the wall, which in 1987 was inscribed by Unesco as part of the transnational Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site. The foundations of a Roman bridge that crossed the River Irthing are also visible.

Museums by the remains of forts at Housesteads and Vindolanda introduce aspects of the wall&rsquos history. It wasn&rsquot purely a defensive structure. Gates along its course helped regulate the flow of people and taxation of goods. The wheels of wooden carts driven centuries ago wore grooves at Housesteads, making it easy to imagine those vehicles jolting over the stone thresholds of the gatehouses they went about their business.

Locals know to arrive early to secure spots in the car parks at Steel Rigg and Housesteads, which prove popular bases for day trippers to explore the surrounding countryside. Wooden signposts point the way along public footpath, which warrant sturdy footwear whatever the weather.

At Sycamore Gap, the ancient stonework dips between two neighbouring hills at one of its most photographed spots. A popular spot to pause for picnics, movie buffs may recognise Sycamore Gap from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which released back in 1991, starring Kevin Costner and Morgan Freeman. The silhouette of the mature tree at its base occasionally features on photos along with the northern lights. Thanks to low levels of light pollution, the sky above Northumberland National Park falls within England&rsquos largest International Dark Sky Park. Experts at Kielder Observatory provide insights into the celestial bodies that can be viewed.

Free to visit, the fort at Carrawburgh warrants a visit for its temple dedicated to Mithras. The roadside site displays replicas of the original altars. The ancient masonry is displayed along with other Roman era artefacts in the Great North Museum: Hancock in central Newcastle, which does an impressive job of putting the history of Hadrian&rsquos Wall into context.

The seaside town of South Shields, on the south bank of the River Tyne, was known to Romans as Arbeia. The site of granaries to supply troops along the frontier, the excavated fort&rsquos reconstructed west gate provides an idea of how those elsewhere would have looked. Remarkably, fragments of ancient letters and shoes found by archaeologists are displayed in Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort&rsquos compact and free-to-visit museum.

Hadrian&rsquos Wall provides a rock solid framework for exploring northern England&rsquos countryside and aspects of Britain&rsquos Roman history.


A brief history of Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian's Wall in northern England is well known to tourists and walkers, and has been subject to many years of archaeological research. Built during the reign of the Roman emperor Hadrian (AD 76–138) and measuring 10 Roman feet, its function has fascinated archaeologists for centuries. Here, Patricia Southern reveals some lesser-known facts about how the Roman wall worked, including what it was used for and why it was built in the first place

This competition is now closed

Published: March 19, 2019 at 9:00 am

The wall that runs across northern England in many ways represented Roman emperor Hadrian’s new ideology. Reigning from AD 117 to 138, Hadrian abandoned continual conquest and expansion in favour of enclosing the Roman empire within clearly marked frontiers. In some provinces the frontier consisted of a road or a river guarded by forts and towers, while in others (including Germany, Africa and Britain) the frontier lines consisted of running barriers.

The British frontier was more elaborate than the others. In its final version it was strongly held by auxiliary soldiers in 17 forts along the line of the wall, with outposts to the north, and forts in the hinterland as well.

Whilst this has been justly labelled overkill, it does seem that the northern British tribes were troublesome. Wars in Britain are mentioned so frequently in literary sources that some archaeologists accuse the ancient authors of exaggeration. In truth, the British tribes did not readily accept Romanisation. They continued to farm the land in their old ways, and probably fought each other. We do not know enough about the tribes and their organisation to be certain that they were not perpetually aggressive, which in turn means that the function of Hadrian’s Wall can be interpreted only from the archaeological remains, with no clues as to Roman policy in dealing with natives.

The frontier system was complex. Starting from the north and working south, there were outposts beyond the wall, three Hadrianic forts in the west, and later forts in the east along what is now the A68 (a major road running from Darlington to Edinburgh). The original version of the wall in the west, from the river Irthing to the Solway Firth, was built of turf.

It could be that the tribes in this area were hostile, and the frontier had to be built rapidly. On the other hand, there could have been a shortage of suitable stone, since the locally available red sandstone is too friable, or easily crumbled. This western section of the wall was replaced in better stone in the second century.

The soldiers in the outposts may have undertaken regular patrols to observe the natives, as suggested by the names of some of the third-century units called ‘exploratores’, or scouts.

Further south there was the wall itself. It was protected by a ditch on its northern side, designed to prevent close approach, and reinforced in some places by three rows of pits, probably containing stacked thorn branches, which made penetration difficult. These features may have been established in the flatter areas, perhaps not all along the wall.

Then came the wall itself, originally around ten Roman feet [shorter than standard English feet] thick, later reduced to eight feet, resulting in a frontier of different dimensions. We do not know how high it was, and most controversially there may or may not have been a wall-walk along the top. No one can say if the Romans patrolled along the wall or confined their lookout posts to the forts, fortlets called ‘milecastles’, and turrets placed every third of a mile between them.

Whether or not there was a wall-walk, there is still a lot of dead ground where observation would be impeded. However, this probably did not matter, as it is unlikely that the wall would be defended like a castle under siege. Instead, the most probable function of the wall was to prevent anyone from getting too close or massing together in the distance. However, it has been suggested that manning the wall top would serve to delay hostile natives, while troops were assembled.

South of the wall there was another, larger ditch, labelled the ‘vallum’ by the venerable Bede (although, to the Romans, that term referred to the whole frontier system). On either side of this ditch there was a mound of earth. The vallum is a puzzle, variously interpreted by archaeologists. It was clearly important to the Romans because – unlike the northern ditch – it was continuous, and cut through rock where necessary. It is possible that the tribes south of the wall were prone to raiding. This may be the reason why the Roman dug the vallum – in order to guard vehicles and animals belonging to the forts.

No Roman frontier would have been capable of stopping masses of tribesmen who were determined to cross it. However, the presence of a solid barrier backed up with military force provided a strong psychological deterrent. It is significant that the emperors who followed Hadrian did not abandon the concept of running barriers. Instead they repaired and rebuilt frontiers. For reasons that archaeologists do not fully understand, Hadrian’s successor, Antoninus Pius, took over Lowland Scotland and built a similar frontier of turf between the Forth and the Clyde. However, it was held for only about two decades before Hadrian’s Wall was recommissioned and remained the northern frontier of the province of Britannia (even though military campaigns were undertaken to the north of it).

In the early third century the emperor Severus fought a war in Scotland, but did not hold the territory. He repaired Hadrian’s Wall so extensively that 19th-century archaeologists believed that he had built it. A century later, when Constantius Chlorus also campaigned in the north, Hadrian’s Wall remained the frontier line. No one can say why these emperors did not annexe the lands that they fought over.

What happened to the wall at the end of the Roman period is not entirely clear. Its function as a frontier may have been lost, with people instead trying to make a living inside the forts, looking to their own protection for as long as they could. Parts of the wall were repaired in timber or occasionally crude stonework, but the infrastructure of the empire had lost cohesion. By the late sixth century, much of the frontier had probably been abandoned.

The fact that we do not know everything there is to know about the wall is part of its fascination. Furthermore, on top of its historical interest, the wall also runs through some of the most stunning scenery in northern England.


A tale of two walls: how Hadrian’s Wall inspired Game of Thrones

In the finale of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, viewers watched as a section of the Wall, a gigantic ice structure separating the Seven Kingdoms from the lands beyond, was destroyed. But what do you know about the Wall's real historical inspiration? Ahead of the final season of George RR Martin's epic fantasy series, Frances McIntosh, a curator at Hadrian's Wall, explores the parallels between the world heritage site and its icy equivalent

This competition is now closed

Published: April 10, 2019 at 10:51 am

Sometimes I like to shorten my job title to ‘Curator of the Wall’. This has to be said in a serious, booming tone, matching that used in Game of Thrones to hail Jon Snow as the ‘King in the North’. As English Heritage’s curator on Hadrian’s Wall, I don’t have to make the same life and death decisions as the characters in the hit book and TV series. But many of the stories associated with Britain’s Roman frontier are every bit as bloody and fascinating as those of George RR Martin’s vast icy wall.

It is a well-known fact that Martin based his ice wall – separating the fictional Seven Kingdoms from the wild lands beyond – on Hadrian’s Wall. The parallels between the two are apparent in the descriptions we have of them: a biographer of the Roman Emperor wrote that Hadrian was “the first to construct a wall, eighty miles in length, which was to separate the barbarians from the Romans” while Game of Thrones character Maester Aemon describes the guardians of the wall – the Night’s Watch – as “the only thing standing between the realm and what lies beyond”. Martin himself has spoken of visiting Hadrian’s Wall, and I can imagine him standing on it looking north and putting himself in the shoes of the Roman soldiers garrisoned on the edge of the empire.

Why was Hadrian’s Wall built?

The construction of Hadrian’s Wall began in AD 122, and there are many theories as to why this huge project was undertaken. Scholars today think that it was part-defensive structure, part-propaganda statement, and part-tax barrier (extracting taxes on goods moving in and out of the empire). It was built by the army of Britain, with the three legions (citizen troops) providing the bulk of the building force. The main phase of building took six years, but work on the forts may have taken another 10 years. The soldiers left their mark by engraving stones built into the structure (called centurial stones), noting which sections they had built.

Initially no forts were part of the plan, but as with any big project changes were made to the scheme along the way. Fourteen forts were ultimately placed around 7 1/3 miles apart, with milecastles (small forts) every Roman mile, and turrets (watch towers) every 1/3 mile. Auxiliary units (non-citizen soldiers) manned the wall throughout its 300-year life. Units were stationed in the forts, and would send soldiers to man the milecastles and turrets on either side. This is similar to the system that Martin’s ice wall uses, although in the story, many of the forts have gone out of use and it is falling into disrepair by the time fans are introduced to the wall. A broad walkway remains on top of Wall, something that is still hotly debated by scholars about whether the same was in place on Hadrian’s Wall.

Working on Hadrian’s Wall in all weathers can cause your imagination to run wild. When I’m ‘stationed’ at Housesteads Roman Fort, staring out into the thick fog, I do occasionally wonder what might come out of it. There are comments in ancient sources of the Roman wall being overrun by barbarian attacks, but the Romans eventually triumphed and were able to repair the damage done by these assaults (easier to do if it is only men coming through, rather than zombie dragons…).

Just like members of the Night’s Watch in Martin’s story, the Roman soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall took an oath that forbade them from marrying. But while joining the Night’s Watch is a life sentence, Roman soldiers ‘only’ had to serve 25 years before receiving citizenship into the Roman empire as a reward for their service.

The soldiers serving on Hadrian’s came from all over the Roman empire. When a new province was conquered, the fighting men from the opposing side would be recruited into the Roman army. This allowed the army to gain new skills, such as archery and cavalry, and enabled them to remove the risk of potential rebellions by these same men, as they were not posted in their home provinces. At Chesters Roman Fort on Hadrian’s Wall, the cavalry unit originated from Asturias in Northern Spain, while the infantry unit at Birdoswald hailed from Dacia, modern-day Romania. Housesteads Fort had soldiers from Tungria (Tongres in modern Belgium) and Frisian soldiers from the north-eastern Netherlands. Elsewhere on the wall there were boatmen from the River Tigris (in modern Iraq), Syrian archers and soldiers from many other Roman provinces.

Being recruited to the army was not all bad. Soldiers had regular pay, access to medical care, and likely better food than many were used to. However, the main reward for serving as an auxiliary was receiving citizenship, which came with political and legal privileges and protections. Until the Edict of Caracalla in 212 (which granted citizenship to all free men), citizenship was quite restricted, so serving in the army was an attractive prospect. Citizenship was passed down to children, so soldiers were also able to bolster the prospects of their descendants.

The men of the Night’s Watch, by comparison, have no such rewards – but they are able to relieve the monotony of life on the ice wall by going to Mole Town, a civilian settlement where they can drink, gamble and visit prostitutes. Each fort on Hadrian’s Wall had something similar. At one, just outside Housesteads Roman Fort, the bodies of a man and woman were found underneath the floor of what was thought to be an inn. The tip of a knife was lodged between the man’s ribs – and we can only guess at what happened there. Life on both walls – be it as a civilian or a soldier – could be nasty, brutish and short.

Not that the royals were let off any more easily. In ancient Rome, Emperor Severus came to power during the civil wars of AD 193 – the Year of the Five Emperors (Pertinax, Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus, and Severus). It is hard not to draw a comparison between these five emperors and Martin’s ‘five kings’: Joffrey Baratheon, Stannis Baratheon, Renly Baratheon, Robb Stark and Balon Greyjoy, who all fight for control of the Iron Throne in the first three novels in the Song of Ice and Fire series.

The year AD 193 began with the murder of the Emperor Commodus, by his mistress and other supposed friends on New Years’ Eve AD 192. His successor, Pertinax, lasted only three months before being killed by the Praetorian Guard (the emperor’s bodyguard, similar to the Kingsguard in Game of Thrones). Didius Julianus then bought the throne by offering the highest bonus to the soldiers in the Praetorian Guard if they accepted him. Unfortunately for him, Septimius Severus was named emperor, and so Julianus was executed on 1 June. Severus still had to deal with Pescennius Niger and Clodius Albinus, who both believed that they should be emperor, which started a two-year civil war that is all too reminiscent of the war between the Houses Stark and the Lannister.

Since the success of the fantasy TV series, we have seen an increasing number of people seeking out the sites that inspired it. I enjoy pointing out the similarity between the character King Joffrey and the boy emperor Caligula they could be twins both physically and in their vicious and cruel natures. Caligula loved to make a joke at dinner parties, saying: “Ho, ho, I’ve just realised that I could click my fingers and have all your heads cut off.” It is not difficult to imagine Joffrey doing something similar indeed, in one episode he triumphantly remarks to his grandfather: “I am the King! I will punish you.” Caligula was accused of incest with his three sisters, reminiscent of Joffrey’s mother, Cersei, and her relationship with her brother Jamie. And the comparisons between the loathsome pair do not end there: both Joffrey and Caligula were fairly keen on torture – and both, unsurprisingly, were assassinated.

Whenever visitors ask what I do for a living, I am tempted to kneel and quote from the Oath of the Night’s Watch – “I am the watcher on the wall” (although I omit the bit about having to “live and die at my post”). But my purpose on the wall is not only to look after it but to motivate people to visit it – and Martin’s brilliant epic is making my job all the easier.

At the end of the last season of Game of Thrones *spoiler alert*, the Night King dramatically breached the wall – riding a dragon, no less – and marched south. The end of Hadrian’s Wall was somewhat less spectacular. There was no great invasion or catastrophic event – troop numbers were reduced as Britain became less of a priority to the empire and the wall gradually fell into disrepair. But the impressive and evocative ruins remain, its miles and miles of turrets, forts and temples a source of inspiration for fantasy writers, hikers – and everyone else who visits.

Dr Frances McIntosh is English Heritage’s curator for Hadrian’s Wall. To discover Hadrian’s Wall, click here.


Africans at Hadrian’s Wall

Hadrian’s Wall, named after Roman Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD), was built between 122 and 128 AD as the frontier fortification for the northernmost region of the Roman Empire, near what is the current border of England and Scotland. During their time on the island of Britain the Romans garrisoned the fortification with troops from various reaches of their empire including soldiers from North Africa.

Although North Africans may have been at the Wall earlier, archaeologists now agree that there is compelling evidence that a 500-strong unit of Moors manned one of the forts along the Wall near the town of Carlisle in the 3rd century AD. Writing in the journal British Archaeology, Richard Benjamin describes a fourth century inscription discovered in Beaumont, two miles from the remains of the Aballava Fort along the western end of the Wall in Cumbria. The inscription refers to the “numerus of Aurelian Moors,” a unit of North Africans, probably named after the Emperor Aurelius, who had earlier garrisoned the fort. This unit is also mentioned in the Notitia Dignitatum which is a Roman document that lists officials and dignitaries who visited the region.

This unit of Moors as well as others were mustered in Roman provinces in North Africa and in adjacent lands such as Mauretania south of modern day Morocco, by the Emperor Septimus Severus (193-211 AD) who was himself a native of Libya. The Moors who arrived at the Wall in the 3rd century were battle tested since they had already fought for the Romans in present-day Germany and along the Danube, where there are other descriptions of the unit.

Although the reasons for the construction of the Wall remain unclear, we do know that the men of the Second, Sixth, and Twentieth Legions constructed the Wall. Few men of these legions were Italian. Most were Spanish, Gallic, and German soldiers. Those who garrisoned the Wall for nearly three centuries were auxiliary units composed of non-citizens from throughout the Empire including the North African Moors.

During the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus, other African-born Romans were active in Britain. Eight African men had positions of command in the northern Roman legions. Other Africans held high rank as equestrian officers. Most Africans, however, were ordinary soldiers or slaves in the Army or to wealthy Roman officials. Moreover, the racially mixed Roman military force did not treat all troops equally. Auxiliary troops were often positioned in the front during battles and thus most likely to suffer injury or death. Nonetheless of the approximately 18,000 Roman soldiers stationed in Britain during the four centuries between 122 and 410 AD, when the Empire evacuated Britain, a small number of them were Africans by birth including those who stood guard and rebuilt sections of Hadrian’s Wall at the northwest edge of the vast Roman Empire.


FACTS - Peter Urmston TurfWall.jpg

Although details are scarce regarding the Wall’s 300-year active lifespan, historical sources suggest that frontier battles and skirmishes occurred from time to time during the late second and early third centuries AD with a major uprising not long after AD180. The Emperor Septimius Severus brought a vast army to Britain in AD 208 and campaigned far north of Hadrian’s Wall. He fell ill and died in York in AD 211. His sons made a peace with the northern tribes that seems to have lasted for over 100 years. When Roman Imperial rule over Britain ended in the early fifth century, many of the forts along Hadrian’s Wall continued to be occupied through the fifth and into the sixth centuries AD. The fort commanders and their soldiers appear to have taken responsibility for local security.

The Wall seems to have survived in a reasonable state of preservation into the Elizabethan period of the 16 th century when there were even proposals to rebuild it due to the ongoing tension and conflict with Scotland and the lack of security created by the lawless Border Reivers. From this period though, stone from the Wall was increasingly taken and used to build houses, churches and farms across Cumbria, Northumberland and Tyne & Wear. In the 1800s people interested in antiquities began to speak out and prevent this from happening. By the mid-19 th century, momentum behind the drive to preserve the Wall had grown and Victorian archaeologists and historians began to contribute to an understanding of the Roman frontier that continues to grow today.


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